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Sanctioned ships briefly find a new home as Eswatini enters the flagging business

A private company registered in the landlocked African state of Eswatini has established itself as the latest ship register to take in sanctioned tonnage, following Gabon’s meteoric rise as the epicentre of dark fleet flagging

Eswatini's nascent flagging business has taken in sanctioned Syrian vessels since it launched late last year and is offering seafarers certification and port services from a landlocked state, despite not being a member state of the International Maritime Organization or a signatory to any of the major maritime treaties or conventions

THE landlocked African state of Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, has joined the growing list of countries establishing shipping registers and offering its flag to sanctioned ships.

Despite Eswatini not being a member state of the International Maritime Organization, a private company, Eswatini Maritime Affairs, was registered with the state’s ministry of Commerce in November last year and has proceeded to register a total of 10 cargo-carrying ships under the Eswatini flag, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence data.

Three of the initial intake of vessels were sanctioned by the US Treasury for their role in supporting the Syrian regime and all three are part of the fleet that exports Ukrainian grain from Russian occupied territories.

According to Capt AK Dhiman, deputy director general of Eswatini Maritime Affairs, which describes itself as a government of Eswatini enterprise, his company signed a contract with the government to establish a maritime administration and an international ship registry.

Dhiman, who has established the company in the Eswatini capital Mbabane, but spoke to Lloyd’s List from India, confirmed that the three sanctioned vessels, San Damian (IMO: 9274331), San Severus (IMO: 9385233) and San Cosmas (IMO: 9274343), had been registered with the Eswatini flag. However, less than 48 hours after Lloyd’s List’s initial enquiry Dhiman then stated that the vessels had been de-registered.

None of the ships have yet reflected the reported change and are still signalling that they are flagged by Eswatini via Automatic Identification System data.



While nobody in the Eswatini government has responded to Lloyd’s List’s questions, the first secretary of the Eswatini embassy in the US confirmed that Eswatini Maritime Affairs were a legitimately trading business registered in the country.

Eswatini is understood to be in the process of submitting the required documentation to join the IMO, although as it stands the country is not a party to any of the major maritime conventions or treaties. It is, however a party to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea which requires states to “exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag”.

The fact that the government is not a party to the Safety of Life At Sea Convention or The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (Marpol), does not legally preclude the government from offering its flag to commercial shipping.

There are 10 cargo-carrying ships flying with the Eswatini flag.

The first vessels joined in November 2023 and were initially very small general cargoships. However, on December 4, Eswatini flagged San Damian, a 12,717 dwt general cargoship previously owned by the government of Syria. Until September last year, San Damian was managed and operated by the Syrian General Authority for Maritime Transport, known as Syriamar.

The current owners are unknown, however, Lebanon-based brokers Chartbrok act exclusively for all three sanctioned Syrian vessels flagged in Eswatini — San Damian, San Severus and San Cosmas.

A representative of Chartbrok declined to reveal the current ownership or management details of the vessels.

All three vessels have been sanctioned by the US government since 2015 for their role in supporting the Syrian regime and engaging in sanctioned trades carrying cargo from Russian occupied Crimea to Syria.

San Cosmas, a 12,744 dwt general cargoship and San Severus, a 18,908 dwt bulk carrier, also ex-Syriamar vessels, joined the Eswatini flag on December 29 last year January 12 respectively, AIS data shows.



Like other prominent members of the fleet trading out of occupied Crimea, the vessels have undergone a series of name, flag and ownership changes recently.

Bosphorus Observer geopolitical consultant Yörük Işik said: “These former Syriamar vessels have gone through a reflagging and renaming operation designed to be purposefully confusing. They have been involved in trade out of Crimea since its annexation. Despite aesthetic changes, these ships engage in the exact same activities as before, going to the same ports and the same destinations. This suggests that the reshuffling is in name only to enable the vessels to operate more freely.”

According to Capt Dhiman, Eswatini’s nascent flagging operation is still in the process of establishing itself, however, he says that the flag registration is being promoted and there are plans to take on further vessels.

The extent to which Eswatini Maritime Affairs is able to deliver on the services advertised by its website remains unclear. In addition to advertising its authority to issue seafarer training certificates, despite not being a signatory to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping, one of the prominent features of the company’s maritime credibility is its links to the port of Mbabane. According to the company’s website the port is a multi-purpose terminal handling containers, bulk carriers and tankers, as well as drydocking , ship repair facilities and bunkering facilities. 

While the landlocked state does have a small dry port on an internal river system, it is only linked to nearby mines and Mozambique’s main port, Maputo, by rail services. 

The existence of the port and news of the country’s flagging services came as a surprise to officials in Eswatini’s US embassy who are investigating the issue “because we are indeed a landlocked country and currently have no leased port or otherwise”.  

Other actively trading ships flagged by Eswatini include Delta, a 1,546 dwt general cargoship owned by a UAE-based company and trading between Iran and UAE; and Bukhta Nagaeva (IMO: 8313879), a 2,397 dwt reefer, owned by Russian company MAG-SEA International Co, which trades between Vladivostok and South Korea.

Eswatini’s entrance to the ship flagging business follows the meteoric rise of states like Gabon which, alongside established flags like Panama, has rapidly grown as the flag of choice for shipping Russian oil since Western sanctions were first imposed 13 months ago.

Gabon has grown from flagging a handful of domestic trading vessels in 2018 to currently having a fleet of over 140 vessels, 44 of which were recently moved under the flag by sanctioned Russian tanker giant Sovcomflot

There are now 54 tankers totalling 5.5m dwt flagged with Gabon that are defined as being part of the dark fleet* of tankers shipping Venezuelan, Russian and Iranian oil, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence data.

The Gabonese registry is operated by UAE-based Intershipping Services in Ajman via the International Ship Registry of Gabon, and was established in 2018.


* Lloyd’s List defines a tanker as part of the dark fleet if it is aged 15 years or over, anonymously owned and/or has a corporate structure designed to obfuscate beneficial ownership discovery, solely deployed in sanctioned oil trades, and engaged in one or more of the deceptive shipping practices outlined in US State Department guidance issued in May 2020. The figures exclude tankers tracked to government-controlled shipping entities such as Russia’s Sovcomflot, or Iran’s National Iranian Tanker Co, and those already sanctioned.

Download our explainer on the different risk profiles of the dark fleet here


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